It's 1952 and Mirabelle Bevan has taken over the McGuigan & McGuigan debt recovery agency after the sad demise of her former boss (he was the only McGuigan, but the name has stuck since two McGuigans seem to elicit confidence). She runs it along with her partner Vesta Churchill and business is so booming that they are in need of another employee to help with legwork. Especially since they are about to be pulled into another unofficial (well, sort of officially unofficial) investigation into the disappearance of a debutante that quickly spirals into murder. Or perhaps just death by misadventure. This is a case that is rather murky on the surface.
Two books in, the last foray introduced our intrepid heroines in Brighton Belle, and I like Mirabelle and Vesta more and more. Both characterization and setting are interesting and just a little off the beaten track which makes this series most appealing. And in London Calling personalities are beginning to flesh out and a comfortable camaraderie is shaping up between the women. They are very different in temperament but still manage to complement each other nicely.
Crime or characterization? It's something of a toss up for me. I prefer both rather than all of one and none of the other. But sometimes it is the characterization alone, the way the characters develop and come together and interact that really carries a mystery series for me. But Sara Sheridan's novels happily have both. I should add in setting, too, which in this case is not limited to the women's seaside hometown of Brighton (that would be part of the off-the-beaten track appeal along with having a central character who is black). A plea for help by one of Vesta's London friends will take both women to the City, to the Bohemian side of life, the smoky Soho jazz clubs where a wealthy young Deb has gone missing and one gangly young sax player seems to be the last person to see her alive.
First a little something to orient ourselves. This is post-WWII Britain where Austerity measures are still in place. Nylons are a hot commodity and not easily had. Race relations are a little bit tense and Brighton is not much better than London. Vesta Churchill has come to expect being stared at and treated differently as one of the black minorities living in Brighton. She left London to get away from her well-meaning but overly protective family. And they left the West Indies to have a better life in England. She is sadly treated as a second class citizen, but it doesn't define her and Mirabelle takes every opportunity offered to help enlighten her fellow countrymen when they make narrow-minded (read that as 'racist') assumptions and remarks. So when Lindon Claremont, shows up on the McGuigan doorstep in something of a bind the women think they are helping him, when in fact he is going to walk right into a mess of trouble.
Mirabelle exudes confidence and control, and while she doesn't shy away from slipping into locked rooms via street-facing windows (hairpins come in mightily handy this time out), or jumping out of them if need be (on more than one occasion in this story she gets scuffed up and scraped up and ruins a perfectly good pair of nylons in order to avoid being caught where she shouldn't be), she tries to do things by the book . . . when she can. And she uses her sources from her wartime work at Whitehall when she can't. She may have 'just been a secretary', but she was a smart and valued Whitehall girl. She would have had a different life had her (married) lover and former colleague not died of a heart attack three years previously, but now she is just trying to get by the best she can. Vesta knows there is something more to Mirabelle, but Mirabelle was such a mystery to her. She doesn't pry and Mirabelle is not overly forthcoming about her life in wartime London, but there is a tinge of sadness to her that is very telling. Those Whitehall days are serving her well now as she is finally able to 'work in the field' so to speak.
Vesta's childhood friend Lindon shows up in rainy Brighton looking for her help, soaked to the skin and shaken by what has happened. But was exactly has happened? An aristocratic Society girl has gone slumming with two friends, visiting jazz clubs, where she is obviously an aficionado of this wild new music yet very much out of place. She dances and drinks and talks jazz. But according to Lindon she went missing after chatting him up and now he seems to be the last person who saw her. There is no body, but too, no sign of the missing Deb and witnesses say they saw them leaving together. Lindon denies all, but Mirabelle is certain that if he turns himself in and lets the police question him, things will resolve themselves on their own. She does not foresee the tragedy that will strike while Lindon is in police custody. Vesta is crushed by events but the two women are determined to find out just what happened to the Debutante and clear Lindon's name of wrongdoing.
There is lots to like about this series and lots of room for the two characters to grow. Mirabelle is a little bit of an enigma even to the reader, but she is smart and university educated and a little more of her personality and history is revealed with each story. The love of her life is dead and she is obviously trying to fill that void in her life with her work, though she does not set out to do detective work--it just seems to fall into her lap. Vesta makes for a good balance. Despite being a decided minority in Brighton she never loses her sense of humor. The McGuigan offices might have been chilled, barren rooms formerly, but Vesta brings warmth and sunshine to them--lots of cups of tea and biscuits (a woman after my own heart). The two women are good for each other. Mirabelle is too much on her own and too thin for her own good whereas Vesta is spirited and a flirt and sassy on top of it all. But Mirabelle is a natural leader and connections, experience and intellectual curiosity mean they are likely to get into more crime-solving-sleuthing situations. Happily for us readers!
I've already got the next book in line, England Expects, and look forward to picking it up soon (especially as it is set during a summer heatwave--just what I need while the snow falls outside my window)!